I've done an awful lot of writing about game design. I kind of assumed this was a given, but I've never really stated it before: I think videogames should be an artistic medium. I don't agree with a lot of videogame artists on many points, but we all agree on this one. I think a lot of us also agree that being an artistic medium, it's unique story telling abilities are something we can't give up. This is the driving force behind this post. How do we use gameplay to tell a story anyway?
It should be pretty clear that if a game that really wants to take advantage of the artistic potential inherent of it's medium the designer has to realize that the story needs to be narrated during and via the gameplay. You can't just have a game where you go around shooting dudes(or whatever your gameplay is like) and tell the story via cutscene. Too many games are like this, where playing is essentially the same as watching a movie but taking a break every few minutes to play some unrelated game that is seriously lacking in the story department.
Cutscenes are not a bad thing, and neither are highly cinematic realtime moments. Just take a look at games like the Mass Effect Series or Deus Ex: Human Revolution and you will see that you can make gameplay and story flow together using almost all of the narrative tools available, cutscenes not excluded. I don't want to go on a rabbit trail about cutscenes-that is an entirely different subject which I may write about in a future article-but I do want you to understand how important it is to consider every narrative tool available to you in story telling, not only for the game as a whole but for each individual moment. Just make sure that they all mesh together and none of them contradict one another.
Basically, your story and gameplay need to complement each other, both working together to effectively communicate your ideas. For example, in a game about being a single weak and helpless person struggling to survive a zombie apocalypse, don't give the player big guns and tell them to shred zombies. I'm looking at you, shooters that call yourselves survival horror. If you want to tell a story about survival and horror, use the gameplay to help. Games like Amnesia: the Dark Descent and Penumbra are great examples of this. In these games the player would either have to improvise weapons using the physics engine or just plain run, trying to put as much distance, furniture, and as many doors as possible between them and the monsters. That is how gameplay can communicate ideas that would either be impossible or significantly less effective otherwise.
If your game has choices the player can make, have those choices impact the gameplay in some way. Giving the player a choice to kill person A or person B means nothing if all it does is change which character fills in for a certain part of the plot. On the other hand if the one you let live provides you with a unique gameplay impacting benefit, the choice suddenly carries significantly more weight and calls for more consideration from the player. Just remember that conversely, your gameplay also needs to impact the story.
An obvious reason for me to discuss all of this is the shear number of games where story and gameplay contradict each other. Amazing games like Mass Effect still suffer from this problem. Mass Effect is largely supposed to be about being forced to make difficult or unpleasant decisions, and making your choices in these scenarios based on what you reason out to be right. Heck, a ton of the game is almost shameless Socratic exercise, but it still falls here because it requires you to choose either paragon or renegade at the beginning and stick to it. That's actually one thing I like about Mass Effect 3, paragon and renegade were merely parts of your overall "reputation bar," which you needed sufficient amounts of to choose certain conversation options.
Anyway, I think you get my point: the gameplay helps the story helps the gameplay helps the story helps the gameplay helps the story helps the gameplay helps the story helps the gameplay...